Proprioception

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We often talk about having five senses, but we really have more than that. For example, proprioception is the sense of where your body is in space. While that may not seem as exciting as the sense of sight, it is a critical function of the body. Without it, coordinated movement like standing and walking around would be pretty difficult, and playing sports or dancing would definitely be out of the question.

Just like you have sensory receptors all over your skin that will notice if someone pokes you, you also have proprioceptors all over your body, especially in your muscles and joints, which communicate your body’s position. For example, in a pitch black room, you can still raise a glass of water to your lips. You might not be able to detect where the glass is very well, but you will know where your hand is and where your mouth is. Together with our sense of vision, our proprioception abilities allow us to move through the world gracefully.

But sometimes we aren’t able to move gracefully. Among other things that can challenge our balance, tight muscles inhibit the information proprioceptors report to the brain in a way similar to decreasing the number of pixels in a photograph.  If you find yourself falling over or stumbling more than normal, it may be because your brain is getting a blurry image of where you are.

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Here are some ways to test your proprioception abilities now:

  1. Stand somewhere flat and level, close your eyes, and try to keep still. Stand there for a minute and notice any swaying in your body. Without constant feedback from your eyes, what information are you getting that you are standing upright?

As long as you aren’t falling over or needing to hold on to something, you can take this test to the next level:

  1. Stand on something uneven and perhaps a bit wobbly, like a pillow. Then close your eyes. Notice what parts move more in their effort to keep you upright.
  2. Stand on one leg and close your eyes. Try to keep your arms resting by your sides.
  3. Stand on one leg on something wobbly and close your eyes.

Any unsteadiness in your body—lurching around, wobbling ankles, waving arms, etc.—as you try to keep still indicates that your proprioceptors aren’t getting clear information. The following are some suggestions of ways to maintain and improve your proprioception so that you can move through the world with greater ease and grace:

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First of all, take off your shoes. Wearing shoes is like putting a blindfold on the proprioceptors in the feet. That’s why your ankles were probably wiggling quite a lot while you tried to balance on one leg. Spending all day long with our feet inside shoes is like having them in a cast, forcing the ankle joint to take up the work of the 30+ joints of the foot. If you’ve ever broken a bone, then you know what happens to body parts that are casted: they stiffen up and become immobile. If you want better balance, you need to take the casts off your feet. Stretch and play with your toes, roll your feet on a golf ball, give yourself a foot massage. Then try the above balance tests again and see if you feel a little steadier on your feet.

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Regularly exercise your proprioceptors. This can take the form of obstacle courses to walk over, such as a rope bridge, playground equipment, or a log. You can walk around a safe place, like your backyard, with your eyes closed. You can also walk in the dark. Even simply changing up your regular walking route can bring a fresh challenge to your proprioceptors so your body can’t anticipate every bump in the road.

Notice if there are things you used to do well as a child (like standing on a log, crouching, squatting, jumping, playing tag) that you stopped doing for some reason, and start doing them again (if possible) before your body forgets how. Our ability to balance doesn’t go away simply because we get old, but because we stopped asking our bodies to be able to balance.

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Get a massage! Bodywork can be very effective in addressing tight muscles, stiff joints, and waking up proprioceptors. Working with a skilled massage therapist, you can restore mind-body connections, prevent injury, and gain greater fluidity in the way you move.

Sleep Well

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Sleep is very important when it comes to the maintenance of our mental and physical health. Although some seem to consider sleep to be a wasteful use of a third of their lives, that time is critical for many bodily processes necessary to keep you up and running well during that other 2/3 of your life. Especially if you are ill or recovering from an injury, sleep is possibly the most important part of your cure.

However, it is very common to have difficulties sleeping. Whether you wake up with a “tweak” in your neck, a headache, a limb or two that went numb, or aches and stiffness in your body, these are signs that something needs to change so your body can get the proper sleep it needs. While there is copious research and conjecture on the myriad issues surrounding sleep, the one most relevant to my line of work is posture, and hence, what you do your sleeping on. Continue reading

Allowing Healing to Happen

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Understanding a bit about how our bodies heal can help us support this process so we can recover faster and more effectively. I’m going to talk about traumatic injury–an injury due to physical damage–what our bodies do about it, and the important ways we can help or hinder them. Continue reading

Moving Your Fluids Around

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Commonly taught anatomy is often simplified for various reasons. Perhaps the pupils are too young, perhaps there is only so much time, perhaps different aspects are considered more important than others. In any case, one common factor often left out is how much impact you have on the processes going on inside you. The way we learn about the digestive system, the urinary system, the circulation system often creates the feeling that our organs simply carry on their business regardless of what’s going on outside. Whether you are sitting there in class or out playing soccer, what’s the difference? Continue reading

Giving Both Sides a Chance

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It’s very natural for us to favor one side or the other of our body, to specialize different parts for doing different tasks. Almost everyone develops right-handedness or left-handedness, but beyond that, we often train our right foot for kicking the soccer ball, our left shoulder for holding up our purse, our left hand for holding the can opener while our right hand twists. Continue reading

Scalene Stretch

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Who:

This stretch could be good for you if you often:

  • Crane your neck forward when working on a computer or something else in front of you
  • Experience stress
  • Breathe more with the upper part of your torso.
  • Hold your head at a particular angle such as when reading, talking on the phone, or working with machinery Continue reading

Bending Down

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As discussed in previous posts “Sitting in Chairs” and “Hamstring Stretch,” many people spend a lot of time with a rounded back. It’s hard to think of an occupation that doesn’t require continuous bending over throughout the day. Whether you sit or stand at a desk, perform physical labor, look after small children, play sports—most activities induce you to lean forward at some point in some way. While there’s nothing wrong with this, the act of bending forward or hunching over is often the cause of chronic pain for people who have been doing it the same way for a long, long time. I’m going to share a few ways to help change things up and give your sad back muscles a break. Continue reading

Plantar fasciitis

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It’s easy to find out what plantar fasciitis is by just googling it, but it can be difficult to wade through the multitude of devices, orthotics, medications, exercises, and other means by which people attempt to alleviate their foot pain. I’m going to share with you some of what I find to be the most impactful tools for plantar fasciitis pain. They tend to be great to use for the majority of musculoskeletal conditions from the feet to the hips (barring tendon ruptures and bone fractures), but it’s always best to get the opinion of your health care provider if you aren’t sure whether something is safe for you to do. Continue reading

Open Book Stretch

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This is a great stretch for the mid-back. So if you regularly feel tension or stiffness around your back, rib cage, or abdomen, try this out. Even if your torso region seems very flexible, this can still be a fun way to introduce more movement to a section of the spine that often ends up pretty stiff in today’s movement culture. Continue reading